Genetic Literacy. Scientific Input as a Precondition for Personal Judgment?

Silja Samerski

The nonsquashy tomato from the genetic engineering laboratory is called a “GM,” or genetically modified, tomato in popular parlance, and the manipulated food of the genetic engineering industry is called “GM food.” Surveys show that many people assume that these “genetically modified foods” contain genes, while tomatoes from their own gardens do not.1 “The majority do not know that they are always chewing genes,” comments the newspaper FAZ (Muller-Jung, 2006). And plant geneticist Hans-Jorg Jacobsen questions whether such ignorant citizens can even participate in a democracy, asking “how our democratic society can make decisions on this kind of meager and uninformed basis. A proper public discourse is called into question and the floodgates are open for one-sided ideologically based agreements” (Jacobsen, 2001, my translation).

This lament over an unenlightened population and the necessity of disseminating “proper” information is widespread (Kerr, 2003; The Genetic Literacy Project, 2012).2 In the genetic age, the proper governance of science, politics, and industry requires citizens who can participate in biopolitical debates and make “informed decisions.” Government agencies and professionals wish to remedy this bemoaned ignorance by promoting genetic literacy (Jennings, 2004). The “life sciences,” and genome research in particular, predicts the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research,3 will have “far-reaching effects” on “our entire social life” (BMBF, my translation). To prepare the population for these pervasive upheavals, the ministry is funding

J.R. Dakers (ed.), New Frontiers in Technological Literacy © John R. Dakers 2014

genetic education in the belief that “secondary research” in the social sciences and on the “discourse between science and society” should contribute toward producing a “well-informed public” (BMBF, 2006, my translation). The goal, according to the ministry, is “to be able to base decision-making on comprehensible facts and rational arguments” (BMBF, 2013).

Industry is likewise committed to promoting genetic literacy. Bayer, Scher- ing, and Roche all want rational, decision-making citizens and informed consumers. “We know that the greatest developments are worth nothing when people do not understand them and thus are not prepared to accept them,” explained the chairman of the Association of Chemical Industry (VCI) in North Rhine in 2001, and he sent off a mobile genetic laboratory to promote proper understanding among citizens (Minwegen, 2003, my translation). A number of institutions have thus taken on the mission of promoting the genetic literacy of the population. Science centers, websites, discourse projects, citizen conferences, life science learning laboratories, physician-patient informed-consent discussions, and genetic counseling clinics all try to turn genetic illiterates into genetic citizens (Heath, Rapp, & Taussig, 2004). As different as the educational program and the public may be, they share one goal in common: they strive to mobilize citizens, by means of professional instruction, to engage with “genes” and “risks” and become qualified to participate in informed debates and make informed decisions. Citizens should know that tomatoes and people carry genes, and they should base their decisions on these facts.

This attempt to facilitate “informed decisions” by promoting genetic literacy is the theme of this chapter. I want to challenge the assumption that genetic education empowers citizens to make an independent personal judgment. On the basis of my empirical research on “genetic alphabetization” in Germany (Samerski, 2010), I analyze the hidden curriculum of genetic education. What is being asked of citizens when autonomy and responsibility requires having experts update your own powers of judgment? Doesn’t the alleged “proper” information already provide the bottom line—namely, the framework and basis for deliberations? In what form of thinking are citizens being initiated when they are no longer supposed to be moved by experience and tangible realities but rather by scientific constructs? These questions loom large, especially since the notion of the “gene” as a definable, controllable, and causative entity is scientifically antiquated (Keller, 2002). If the concept of the gene is obsolete in research, what do people learn when their genetic literacy is improved?

Drawing on three instances from my participant observations at public events and genetic counseling sessions, I will argue that the promotion of genetic literacy disables citizens’ common sense by instilling in them the scientifically buttressed worldview of geneticists. First, at a public congress aiming at fostering public debate on gene technology, the experts related not to common sense (Arendt, 1958) but to scientific terms and expert opinions. Thus they widened the gap between science and the public and rendered the audience speechless. As my second example, I take the public lecture by a leading German geneticist to show that the truth claims concerning genes are part of the creation of an aura of indisputability around genetic expertise. The geneticist explained how genes “really” influence human beings, thereby claiming unassailable authority over people’s bodies and their very beings. In my third example, genetic counseling, the genetic lessons are claimed to have direct personal relevance to a specific individual. Clients are instructed not only about genes and humankind in general but about themselves in particular. Thus they are invited to take genetic constructs as revelations of their very being, their health and disease, their mind and body, their past and future. Finally, I conclude that campaigns for genetic literacy propagate submission under the defining power of genetic expertise and make scientific input a precondition for responsibility and autonomy.

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